Comparison of Headword Lists

Geiriadur yr Academi [GYA] certainly contains a lot of words. But what sort of words are they? Does it have what you need? In fact, in spite of its wide range, GYA manages to miss out a lot of important stuff. As an interesting exercise, why not try translating a radio bulletin or broadsheet news article into Welsh, using GYA? If you develop the habit, even for a few days, of noting down English words you hear around you and looking them up in GYA, you will soon see what a long way there is to go. When I tried this I found (or rather failed to find) environment-friendly, ethnic cleansing, homelessness, homophobia, ozone-friendly; mailshot, supermodel, camcorder, futon, jacuzzi, microwave [oven], mobile phone; DNA, GCSE, HIV, PC [= personal computer/politically correct]; commuting, to commute, to video something – and more besides. But to be more systematic, here is a sample of the more important omissions, just from the early part of letter A (NB: some of these may be unfamiliar to non-British readers):

A3, A4, the A-list, A number 1, A-road, A-side, A to Z, AA, A and E, ABS, ABTA, Abu Dhabi, academic freedom, academic year, ACAS, AC/DC, acid rain, acoustic guitar, action replay, active ingredient, acupressure, AD, ad break, ADC, Addis Ababa, Advent calendar, advertising campaign, affirmative action, African-American, African National Congress (ANC), age limit, age range, aid agency, AIDS-related, AIDS patient/victim, to air [broadcasting sense], air ambulance, air freshener, air-sea missile, air time, air-traffic control(ler).

It might be unreasonable, in a dictionary compiled over a period of some twenty years, to expect reliable coverage of all the latest up-to-the-minute terminology – though to its credit GYA does boast a handful of useful computer terms (for example, e-mail was quite a far-sighted inclusion in the early nineties, when e-mail was not nearly as widespread as it is now). But the items listed above are hardly brand-new. Most of them should have been in any large dictionary years ago. And don’t forget, GYA certainly is a large dictionary, twice the size of most single-volume bilingual dictionaries, since they usually translate in both directions and thus contain two books in one, while GYA goes only from English to Welsh.

Perhaps it seems unfair to pick holes in this one dictionary without reference to others – after all, nothing is perfect. Would any other dictionary be much better? To show how much better things could have been, let’s compare a short stretch of the GYA wordlist with that of the Collins-Robert French–English English–French Dictionary [CR], a popular and respected one-volume bilingual dictionary of similar vintage (first edition 1978, last revised 1998) but lesser size, given that it contains both a French–English and an English–French dictionary while GYA doesn’t have a Welsh-to-English half.


Baal, Baalism, Baalist, baba, babacoote, babassu, Babbitt, Babbittry, babblement, babesia, babesiasis, babies’ breath, babiroussa, Babism, Babist, Babu, babul, babying, babyishly, babyishness, Babylonia, Babylonish, baccate, Bacchant, Bacchante, Bacchantic, bacciferous, bacciform, bacciverous, bacillariophyta, bacilliform, [ . . . ] bone-lace, bone-seeking, bone-setter, bone-spavin, bone-yard, boneheadedness, boneset, bonism, bonist, bonne bouche, bonnetted, bonnily, bonniness, Bonvilston, bonxie, bonze, bonzer, book of hours, book bin, book box, book-card, book-cloth, book collector, book conveyor, book-craft, book-design, book festival, book-flat, book-form, book-hunter, book-hunting, book lift, book-muslin, book-number, book-plate, book-pocket, book-quiz, book-rack, book-rest, book-satchel, book shrine, book stack, book stamp, book stock, book talk, book trade, book tray, book trolley, book-trough, book value, book van, bookland, booklist, booklore, booklouse, bookman, bookmarker, bookmobile, booksy, bookwork, boom town.

In terms of headwords and compounds alone, GYA is enormously comprehensive: in this tiny sample words in GYA and not in CR outnumber those in CR and not in GYA by about three to one, though CR may still have more in the way of phrases within the entry. But are we missing much? Notice how obscure most of this extra material is, and by contrast how important and relevant to the real world some of GYA’s omissions are:


B-road, B side, babble on, babe [= attractive girl], baby carrots/sweetcorn, baby blues, baby boom, baby food(s), baby-doll pyjamas, baby talk, baby tooth, baccy, [ . . . ] bone-chilling, bone structure, bone up on, boned [fish, meat], boner [vulgar sense], bong, bonk, bonking, Bonn, bonus point, boob job, boob tube, booger, book review, book up, Booker Prize, booking fee, boom box.

What sort of things do you get in GYA and not in CR? Notice, even in this small sample, GYA’s bias towards the rarefied and academic, at the expense of basic, everyday terms from the real world. It’s big on specialist and technical terms (bacillariophyta, bone-spavin, book-muslin), which you might expect to find in a specialist glossary rather than a general dictionary, particularly obscure flora and fauna (babassu, babies’ breath, babiroussa, bonxie); academic, theological and historical vocabulary (Baalism, Bacchantic); and derived forms (boneheadedness, bonnily) which are sometimes rather improbable (is there really such a word as teachably or teachableness, and how would you use it?) and which tend to have predictable, mechanical translations that often don’t work in context.

Conversely, despite its best intentions, it’s weak on: colloquial and vulgar language (babe, boner, bonking), although the quaint slang of yesteryear is certainly well represented (I was gonged by the police, cripes, ripping, congratters); the practicalities of everyday life (B-road, baby food, booking fee); and of course anything to do with youth or fashion (boob tube, boom box – not exactly brand-new terms).


CR front cover Collins–Robert French–English, English–French Dictionary: Unabridged (1978, 5th ed. 1998). Glasgow: HarperCollins Publishers, ISBN 0-00-470526-2, £23.99 h/b.


GYA front cover Griffiths, Bruce (ed.) and Dafydd Glyn Jones (assoc. ed.) (1995) Geiriadur yr Academi: The Welsh Academy English–Welsh Dictionary. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, ISBN 0-7083-1186-5, £40.00 h/b.

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© 2000–2001 Harry Campbell
Last updated: February 2000